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Mughal Riverfront Gardens of Agra: Challenges and Opportunities

Along the banks of Yamuna River in Agra lie traces of the pleasure gardens designed by the Mughals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A recently signed international bilateral partnership between World Monuments Fund and the Archaeological Survey of India is concertedly working toward reviving the glory of two of these gardens—Mehtab Bagh and I’timad-ud-Daulah. The two riverfront gardens are diametrically opposite to each other in terms of spatial layout and design and in the approach that would be required toward their restoration. One contains a jewel-like mausoleum centred in its char bagh (quadrilateral garden) and the other is fabled to contain the reflection of the pristine Taj Mahal in its octagonal pool on a moonlit night, thus its name, Mehtab Bagh, the “Moonlight Garden.”

Mehtab Bagh, which was originally a fruit orchard, is now a garden with neatly laid-out planting pattern and trees. Barring the visible elements of the octagonal pool and water tanks, the majority of the ancient and traditional water system lies buried. This raises questions such as how much to restore, how much to unearth,what proportion of the original water system survives, how much of it is usable, is the reflection of the Taj in the pool really possible to recreate once again, and do we rebuild fully the riverside burj (tower) like its counterpart on the south western side?

The garden at the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, on the other hand, with its architecture and embellishments largely intact, in addition to the as also ancient water system of channels, walkways, and chadar (chute), presents challenges of a different. What seems obvious and visible here may perhaps not be true—it may not be that simple to restore the water system as it appears to be from what remains! We must investigate where the water comes from, and what to plant instead of the sprawling lawns, which would help serve the dual purpose of recreating a Mughal garden and provide some respite to the yellowing marble and fading stone inlay of the central jewel, the tomb. The complex sits within a dense community settlement, so can we together the multitude of stakeholders in the conservation processes? Can we recover the original Mughal frescoes in the mausoleum underneath layers of later painting? Can we replace the precious and exquisite stone inlay with today’s materials and craftsmanship?

These and many more conservation interventions on both sites would demand exhaustive research, analysis, preparation of feasibility proposals, and intensive debates and discussions to create conservation solutions acceptable to all.

The challenges at these sites are indeed difficult, but the opportunities presented are equally unique. Armed with a small project coordination team based in New Delhi, WMF has embarked on a journey for the next three years toward restoring these gardens with the help of a multi-disciplinary team. Conservation and landscape architects, archaeologists, hydraulic and structural engineers, wall painting and stone conservators, community participation and digital documentation experts, and other specialists have all been brought together at a common platform to find solutions for restoring the two gardens. Join us on this exciting journey over the next six months as we attempt to re-create on paper these two Mughal gardens as they were once upon a time.